Last week I tried to shake things up a bit with more of a cri de coeur than a scouting report. Well, that didn't work. The Sounders lost again. So we're back to real scouting.
Tomorrow marks the end of a tumultuous regular season for Seattle that's rubber banded between a poor start, a fabulous May, a disappointing mid-summer, a tremendous August and September, and now. . whatever this is. Probably the worst stretch of games in the team's MLS history. We can only hope that whoever is in charge of Seattle's performance light-switch sets it back to 'on' for the playoffs.
But before that, the Galaxy. And it will not be a meaningless match at the end of the season. We'll know by the end of today whether Seattle has any chance of reaching second in the West (via an unlikely Chivas win over the Timbers). But the difference between 2nd and 3rd for playoff seeding is marginal, if anything. The bigger question is whether they can reach 3rd and avoid a play-in match. That requires that they beat LA. And if they can't accomplish that, hosting the midweek play-in game at CenturyLink is vital. To do that they have to do at least as well as Colorado, who kicks off against Vancouver an hour earlier, in which case Seattle would host the Rapids in the wild card game. A Seattle draw and Rapids win tomorrow means Seattle travels to LA for the wild card. A Seattle loss and Rapids draw means they travel to Commerce City. Neither is a pleasant prospect.
So winning is the goal here. But winning is something the Sounders haven't done in 6 games. That's a stretch that started with a 1-1 away draw against LA — a pretty decent result that was just the foreshadowing of results that became increasingly indecent. And while playing at home is obviously an advantage, the Galaxy will have little fear of CenturyLink. Last time they played here, Robbie Keane dinked a ball off of Adam Johansson's arm, which in combination with the high quality of MLS officiating resulted in a penalty that effectively ended Seattle's playoffs.
This time, Seattle's biggest advantage might be the absence of Juninho, who's out with yellow card accumulation. It was the Brazilian who scored LA's only goal in the previous matchup in Carson and he forms a solid midfield partnership with Marcelo Sarvas, which allows Keane and Landon Donovan to roam around and be dangerous. The Galaxy are not deep in the central midfield. The only other time they didn't play Juninho this season was a game against Chivas earlier this month, and there they played the venerable Pablo Mastroeni in his place:
If it is Mastroeni and Sarvas that play in the middle, that would give LA's central midfield a combined age of 69. That would be an opportunity for a dynamic, fast central attacking midfield to make some hay, but sadly that is not what Seattle brings to the table. We really have no idea who's available in the Seattle attack, given the nagging injuries to all three of our top attacking options. But if we can put together a forward tandem of any two of Obafemi Martins, Lamar Neagle, and Eddie Johnson, that would free Clint Dempsey to drop into the central attack and try to take advantage of LA's weakness there.
The alternative is something like Clint + EJ up top, Neagle on the left, and a central midfield of Osvaldo Alonso and either Brad Evans or Adam Moffat. That would be more like what we've been doing up to now. My argument would be that what we've been doing up to now hasn't exactly produced results, and it would be a lineup particularly insensitive to the matchup. But who knows.
LA aren't particularly strong on the wing either. They tried to remedy that with the Mike Magee for Robbie Rogers deal, but that turned into a fiasco as Magee has become an MVP candidate in Chicago and Rogers still hasn't found a place in the Galaxy side. Instead it's Homegrown Player Gyasi Zardes who they're pinning their hopes on in the playoffs for dangerous wing play.
It's strange to talk about a two time defending MLS Cup champion has having a weak midfield, both in the center and the wings, but they make up for it in the attack and defense. Keane and Donovan are by far the most dangerous attacking pair in the league, in terms of both individual talent and the level of understanding they have between each other. And at the other end, Omar Gonzalez is a dominant defender, evidenced by the fact that he's the only defensive DP in the league.
To crack LA's attack, Seattle's defense will have to be much, much better than it's been in the last few weeks. And they will almost certainly have to do it without Leo Gonzalez again. DeAndre Yedlin will have to manage Zardes and the back line will have to collaborate with Alonso to keep Donovan and Keane under control.
And to crack the defense, Seattle's attackers will want to keep the ball on the ground in the run of play (no matter how tempting the high cross to EJ may look) and try to find enough interplay to pull the LA defenders out of position.
Figuring out those two battles are the difference between a first round bye (and no home field disadvantage until a potential MLS Cup Final) and having to play for their playoff lives again — potentially on the road — a few days later.